Complex Nocturnal Visual Hallucinations

Original Mandala by Anna Loscotoff. Drawing of experience with Complex Nocturnal Visual Hallucinations, drawn on Procreate. Image of woman with blonde hair dreaming her arms are too long. She's sitting in blue bed with orange light in background. 2020.

I recently had a rough night of sleep.  The hallucinations kept coming, one after another, for hours.  Because I understand what’s happening, or at least understand it’s not real, they don’t last as long as they used to.  I can generally pull myself out fairly quickly, but on nights like this I become afraid to close my eyes again and the anxiety rises. The adrenaline and fear is exhausting and at a certain point my brain begins to think something is really wrong.  On this particular night, after hours of partially waking, I told my husband that I thought I was having strokes. I was mostly asleep, not fully conscious of what I was saying. Other nights I’ve told him I was having a heart attack.  One night, I got up and told my daughter, full of panic, that my arms were too long. Yes, my arms were too long.  In reality, my brain is somewhere in the in-between; not yet awake, not completely asleep.

Anna sleeping at around 5 years of age with her dog.

When I was in high school I slept with my lamp on.  My dad, always conscious of the energy bill, would come in at 2 or 3 in the morning, my light having somehow woke him. He would switch it off, unintentionally waking me, and quietly reprimand me for keeping it on.  I’ve come to learn it was a sleep survival instinct. Research has shown that increasing light pulls the individual out of the hallucination.  That’s why, in second grade, the skeleton on my shelf didn’t disappear just because my dad came in the room.  It disappeared when he turned on the light. Many nights, with the lights off, I would see doors in my bedroom walls.  My brain told me I needed to go through the doors, curious about where they went.  Only I couldn’t get to them, something was in the way.  That something was often a dresser or bookshelf, and I would fully wake trying to move them.

You’d think a solution would be to sleep with the light on.  As an adult, I wish that were an option.  I do sleep with a salt lamp, but that often feels too bright and doesn’t allow me to fully sleep.  Nightlights cause shadows.  Those shadows become stories, creatures, forms.  Those shadows become anxieties to my sleeping mind. 

I go through stages of hallucinations, my mind fixating on certain subjects, sometimes for years at a time. I’ve had weeks of aliens coming through the ceiling, years of an important ring that I have lost or swallowed (and the loss of that ring to my sleeping mind will end the world), fairies flying around the room, floods. Lately my mind has a preoccupation with electricity. All of these are symbolic and visions into where my subconscious is centered. I will go more into symbolism, both in dreams and in hallucinations, in future posts.

Could there be something really wrong? This condition can be found in completely normal, healthy individuals, but there are some genuine medical reasons that people experience nocturnal hallucinations.  I just don’t seem to have any of them.  I don’t have hallucinations during the day, either visual or auditory, which is common in Schizophrenia.  I don’t have Epilepsy.  I don’t use drugs or alcohol.  No sight deprivation, Parkinson’s or Lewy body dementia.  Complex Nocturnal Hallucinations are also common in Narcolepsy, however Narcolepsy has several other defining factors such as excessive daytime sleepiness and sleep paralysis (neither are issues that affect me.) Also, it started when I was in 1st grade, (perhaps earlier, I just don’t have the conscious memory), which makes me think it is just how my brain fires. 

What types of things have you experienced while sleeping?  Any common symbols that keep coming up for you?

Want to explore deeper?  Here are some studies about Complex Nocturnal Visual Hallucination:

Complex Visual Hallucinations in Mentally Healthy People

Complex Visual Hallucinations; Clinical and Neurobiological Insights

What You Should Know About Sleep-Related Hallucinations

Melatonin-Responsive Complex Nocturnal Visual Hallucinations

The Skeleton on the Shelf

Anna in 1981, age 6, in her backyard.

I was only in first grade, nestled into my blankets on the loft of my bunk bed. It was late, everyone asleep, all the lights out. I opened my eyes from my deep sleep. Sitting across the room, on my book shelf, sat a skeleton. Not a little one, like a toy, but a full sized boney form, staring at me.

I screamed.

I kept screaming.

It kept staring at me.

My dad burst into the room; the skeleton sat until my dad flipped on the light. Mercifully, the light banished my visitor.

At school, I told the third grade girls who I so delightfully looked up to about my experience.  They were convinced I had been visited by Bloody Mary and I feared they were right.

Anna holding her birthday cake in the shape of a giraffe on her 7th birthday.

This is my first memory in a long history of sleep disorders, all falling under the umbrella of Parasomnia.  Parasomnia includes common sleep disorders you’ve probably heard of like Sleepwalking, Sleep Talking, and Nightmare Disorders, but it also includes sleep disorders a little less familiar, like Hypnagogic Hallucinations (upon falling asleep), Hypnopompic Hallucinations (upon waking), and Complex Nocturnal Visual Hallucinations (middle of the night.) While  Hypnagogic and Hypnopompic Hallucinations are often connected to Narcolepsy, Sleep Paralysis and Excessive Daytime Sleepiness, Complex Nocturnal Visual Hallucinations often disappear with increasing light and don’t cause that same exhaustion during the day.  

Through my years of sleep disorders (Sleepwalking, Sleep Talking, Nightmares, Teeth Grinding, Complex Nocturnal Visual Hallucinations) I’ve become deeply invested in the world of sleep, how our dreaming brain works, symbolism and dream interpretation.   

This blog will be an exploration of dreams and symbolism, mandala work, art, meditation through art, and sleep. It may lead us down unforeseen paths, like the time I followed a red balloon through my parent’s room, trying to convince them it was real and them trying to convince me I was asleep and needed to go back to bed. I hope you will join me on this journey.